Saturday, August 30, 2014

Would you like to see a list of projects that assisted 2004 tsunami survivors? Tough luck!

 When I start to get really good and steamed about how the reconstruction money was spent, JMD staff will try to soothe me.
They sit me down, give me a cool drink, and madly try to think of projects that have been helpful, and that are still functioning.
They usually come up with The Road.  The 104km Banda Aceh to Calang (Aceh Jaya) road was completely washed out in the tsunami, and one of the first infrastructure projects attempted was its reconstruction, funded by USAID to the tune of about $200million.

It was an impressive project and involved an inordinate amount of activity other than just engineering and construction.  Parts of the road had to be re-sited due to the erosion caused by the tsunami; I think that over 3,000 separate land use/right-of-way agreements had to be finalized.  So I’m not saying that this task was not herculean in nature and did not serve an incredibly useful and vital purpose.

Some of the final audits of the project happened as late as 2009.  But by this time, and what the audits do not report, is that great sections of the new road were already falling apart.  Even after the roadbed was moved, the edges were still prone to erosion.  And whether the donor never verified this or the government just fibbed, there was never any money available for the maintenance and repair of this road.  So this was a $200million short-term emergency measure. 
I’m saying, if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, call it a duck—not a wonderfully sustainable addition to Aceh’s legacy 10 years later.

So after I natter on about the road for a few minutes, the staff tentatively suggests . . . housing?  Knowing that this will really tee me off, because when I arrived in Aceh in early 2005 this was what I did—I helped build houses in Rumpet, Aceh Jaya, the epicenter of the disaster.  

I asked how I could help and people told me, we need houses. And I learned the hard way—but quickly—that you don’t build people a house that you think is nice, you build a house that people will live in.  And there are hundreds of MDF-built houses on the west coast that are still vacant, because none of the NGOs ever asked the Acehnese where they wanted the houses or what constituted good housing (hint: indoor bathrooms are considered disgusting.) 
“ . . . Community consultation about basic decisions such as whether the tsunami survivors wanted health clinics, new, wide escape roads, and even drainage . . .  was a very time consuming process. And on closer inspection there was a major miscalculation of local needs. ‘Aid organisations were under pressure to spend the money,’ says Muslahuddin Daud, reeling off a list of empty facilities spread across the province. [schools, health clinics, water treatment plants, etc.]”  (  

But after the emergency phase of assistance, what was the rush?  Well, I know one reason: many aid agencies were frightened that the as-yet still active fighting between GAM and the Indonesian army would jeopardize worker safety, so they either left projects half-finished, hoping a local agency would step in (which is how we got our start), or they raced like mad to complete projects without a thought to the future consequences of the work. 

Remember, the audits of projects (by the international aid agencies who received the funds) were still being finalized as of 2010.  And already, things are beginning to fall apart.
It is a good thing that large NGOs keep records.  Because BRR, the agency set up to administer the multi-donor fund, did not.  It started out trying to, but never could figure out that even if you spent millions of the reconstruction funds developing a database, when your non-Acehnese IT contractors and database managers left, without training any local staff adequately, the system would be useless.

We discovered this pile of useless million-dollar  databases when we tried to find out more about the  AAA/Keumang cocoa project from World Bank.  A colleague who works for WB but not in Indonesia told me that WB did in fact require NGOs to submit final financial accounting reports.  Programmatic reports, addressing proposed goals and activities, however, were apparently of no interest.  If you could account for the money  on paper that’s all they needed. 

In the beginning, when we were all starting this, there was a database called RAN (Recovery Aceh Nias).  Send me an email and I can direct you to the 500-page overview. It was a loathsome beast of a system and for those of us who struggled with it in the early days, it was a good reason to just give up and hope BRR wouldn’t take our funding back. The database was created by Synergy, a company that I am sure will never set tootsies in Aceh again, and designed to “collect, track, analyze and display project and funding information.” 

This is what Synergy had to say about their baby:
Within the RAN Database, Synergy developed a number of other systems to build the capacity of the Government to track tsunami reconstruction and enhance the management of the work-flow processes. [No government official that I ever heard of had been trained in this.] These included a Donor/Partner Profiles Module and a Concept Note Submission and Approval Module for organizing the bottom-up and top-down budget planning process of the reconstruction. The Concept Notes online submission and approval process involved the entire NGO community in sharing data on their planned activities for better coordination.” Ahahahahahahahahahaha. 

“The RAN has become the central coordinating database for Tsunami recovery data in Indonesia, tracking 1700 projects and a total of USD 3.7 billion in commitments." And we couldn’t find it—it is offline and we don’t know whether any of the information that some of us had painstakingly entered in it is even in existence anymore.

What is interesting is that RAN’s creators say that it “won the Innovative Government Technology Award in the Information Management category at the 2008 FutureGov Summit . . . recognised as an innovative model of information management that has successfully promoted improvement in public services, modernisation of government administration and efficiency of public sector management.”
But when we talk with people who were in Aceh in 2005 and beyond, and ask them, “So, where’s the project database?” this turkey never comes up.  No one at BRR ever thought that when their agency folded, so would the database. (

But wait!  It gets better!  Apparently hoping that no one noticed the million-dollar (dead) elephant in the living room, World Bank tries again and develops ANOTHER database in 2008, called KNOW.  Here is its description:

The BRR Knowledge Centre (KNOW) is dedicated to the preservation of data and management of information related to the rehabilitation and reconstruction programme in Aceh and Nias (2005-09). KNOW was established by BRR in June 2008 through support from the Multi Donor Fund and in partnership with UNDP. Its principle activities include the collection, cataloguing and classification of documents and other media formats and to enable this information to be accessed for research and reference purposes. 

There is no longer a working link to this site.  Former BRR officials admit that it was too complicated for anyone left in Aceh to manage. So it no longer exists.  World Bank officials (the current PMU in Aceh and Jakarta) will not comment on the status of any project, or whether any close-out evaluation was done.

A WB employee, not based in Indonesia but with knowledge of EDFF and MDF, recently acknowledged privately that “there was so much money” that WB officials in Indonesia could not track it, and many of those working on the MDF have now been “promoted” to other positions, precisely because of the amount of the reconstruction money, not because of its handling.

There does not seem to be any centralized (or even decentralized) accounting of projects, completion status, or post-completion monitoring and evaluation.  Bill Nicol, an Australian who worked with BRR and self-proclaimed “expert” on the reconstruction process, when asked about KNOW, said he asked his colleagues at WB and no one had ever heard of it. He himself had never heard of it, saying that he “had nothing to do” with monitoring or evaluation or follow-up.  Apparently, neither did anyone else.

So as you can see, it is very difficult to tell, on the 10-year anniversary of the tsunami, which reconstruction efforts were truly useful and/or sustainable.  

Next time: let’s examine all 5,000,000,000,000 pages of inter-agency “lessons learned,” shall we?

Friday, August 29, 2014

Part IV: Post-project monitoring? Service delivery evaluation? What's that??

You know, I really don’t think I could stomach a career on the tell-all circuit.  I’d always be afraid of missing some salient point, some bit of exonerating information that would absolve everyone of the dirty underhanded deeds I thought they were getting away with.

And so when we first started communicating with AAA and trying to find out exactly where all that money went, we were pretty thorough.  After a while, when my first contact stopped returning emails, I called AAA’s US offices, several times.  Spoke with people “who were familiar with that project.”  Of course, AAA no longer works in Indonesia, and  none of the "directors" who were going to "get right back in touch" never did.  Their Indonesia "desk" is closed and they don’t even mention it, or their $6.7 million project on their website.

Why, it’s almost as if it never existed.

As I mentioned yesterday, even though everyone we talked to in the district swore up and down that nothing ever came of that project and that no one got any services or materials, I did not just fall off the turnip truck yesterday.  I am pretty sure that something, somewhere, went on.  Like that training in Pidie that everyone thought the government sponsored.  Well, a good agency would coordinate the project so that the government, or a local source, could take credit for it, in order to reinforce to a community that its elected officials were working for it and that people could place their trust in local institutions.

However, I am not inclined to be so magnanimous wen it comes to all the buildings that were not constructed, the vehicles (all seven of ‘em) that either were never purchased or disappeared, the trainings that, if given, went in one ear and out the other, or the reports of, after spending $6.7 million (sorry to keep repeating that; I can’t seem to get it out of my head) regarding how much production and prices improved for the supposedly 2,000 farmers the project assisted.
(I know this isn’t fair, but if they’d just given each of those farmers about $3,300 apiece—or the equivalent of 8 months’ very good salary-- everyone would have been thrilled.)

One of JMD’s staff members had a friend who used to work at the PMU of World Bank when the EDFF component was being administered.  He told us that there were no final monitoring reports of the project . . . or for most of the projects for that matter, but specifically not for this one.  He also said (and this was verified by several other NGO directors in the region) that the agency Keumang had been blacklisted by the World Bank, meaning they’d never eat lunch in that town again.  AAA, to its credit (or maybe not) never mentioned to us or in the final report that Keumang was in any way to blame for any of the activities not being completed.  I suspect that this is because AAA was not directly involved at all in the project; it collected its administrative fee and hoped that Keumang would take care of everything else. 

One could argue that this is why donor agencies did not deal directly with Acehnese NGOs to begin with.  But Keumang was a subcontractor.  I have no idea what percentage of the $6.7million it specifically received and what percentage remained under AAA’s administrative control.  No one is talking.  No one, actually, is even in the room anymore.

I’ve written to a reporter at AP—the representative from the Clinton Global Initiative I met with told me that journalists can extract information from entities that close like clams when they see me, or any other "civilian" coming.

Anyway, JMD is ever Little Merry Sunshine, and saw this as an opportunity to do what it does really well: field investigation.  Surely, monitoring and evaluation are an incredibly important part of the whole reconstruction processWorld Bank would be sitting up nights fretting over its missing post-implementation narrative.


So we wrote AAA first, commending them for all their hard work, acknowledging that a project of this magnitude must have been very difficult to manage (I can be quite courteous actually), and telling them of our fabulous idea.

Parts of the letter went like this:

We are therefore wondering what are your thoughts regarding JMD’s search for additional funding to complete the final monitoring and evaluation portion of your project.

Obviously the evaluation would not cover all the aspects of the project that were initially outlines; the report lists in detail those portions of the project that were curtailed or eliminated.  The continued implementation of good cultivation and harvesting practices, however, combined with an assessment of the success and continuation of the co-operatives as established mechanisms for increased production and economic growth, could be addressed via an instrument created by JMD.  We believe that the information gathered from this evaluation would be of great importance to the future success of smallholders who wish to take a place at the commodities table.

Would it be possible for JMD to work off the lessons and activities of your completed project and develop/implement an evaluation mechanism that would both objectively measure the success of the activities performed and provide a comprehensive blueprint for future cocoa improvement initiatives in Aceh?

And as I said, the silence was deafening.

Then JMD went back to World Bank to see who to contact regarding suggesting this type of post-project report.
What we found next shocked even us.
There weren’t any on record.

Stay tuned!

Thursday, August 28, 2014

The case of the $6.7 million phantom cocoa improvement project, part III

Let me start this post by once again commending the Embassy of Finland
(yay, Finland!)

for believing in the power of local non-profits in Indonesia to effect positive change.  Their Local Community Fund (LCF) project is supporting JMD’s 31 cocoa farmers, their families and their communities during a 3-year project in Aceh Timur.  JMD covers the cost of most of its administration (although LCF kicks in direct service salaries and a percentage of agency operating costs.  The total amount? About $45,000, or $15,000 a year.

Imagine, then, what $6.7 MILLION could do for smallholder cocoa farmers in Aceh!

Here’s where our story begins:
In March of 2012 I sent Robert (yes, poor Robert, the guy I send to the middle of several Nowheres a year) to investigate future sites for parallel coffee farmer projects.  JMD's goal, after all, is to establish a network of farmer associations that could band together to form a real coca “bloc” in Aceh Timur, put it on the map as the go-to spot for cocoa, and at the same time show communities—and the world—that mining and palm oil plantations are not nearly a tenth as appropriate in and near protected forests as organic cocoa.

So off Robert trudged . . .

Here he is . . . trudging across a river.  Happily, I might add.  He adores working in the field, bless him.

And he found a great area, on the border of Aceh Utara (to the east) and still out of the “territory” of our . . . well, let’s just say extremely large rival, SwissContact.  (Swisscontact does not think of JMD as a rival, by the way.  I do believe they think of us as a tiny little flea on the backside of the hippopotamus that is their NGO.)
Anyway, Robert comes back and reports on this cocoa-rich area, in which farmers are desperate for training and assistance . . . but there are several villages into which we cannot go because there has been a local NGO there before, and its name is Keumang, which apparently means Mud in Bahasa, because Keumang is so disliked and distrusted in that area that any agency saying “Hi, we’re here to help” will be run out of town faster than a wild boar with a snoutful of cocoa pod.

But I thought: somehow, this community has got to know that not all local NGOs are like  that.  Heck, until I’d heard of Keumang I thought that JMD was the only sustainable livelihoods agency left in the province.  Robert did some more digging, along with other JMD staff, and found out that Keumang’s offices were closed, and that apparently they went out of business.  We tried to find them but they were in the wind.

Robert however is a congenial lad, and he had earlier made friends with the guys from the Forestry Department, who told him that Keumang had partnered with an international NGO for a very big cocoa project, but nothing had ever come of it.

So I did a little research and found that in 2008 an agency called Action Aid Australia had received $6.7 million from the remaining EDFF funds to implement a project called Improving Competitiveness of Aceh Cocoa Value Chain to Increase Farmers Income, Create Jobs and Alleviate Poverty.  I looked them up on line and wrote them the following note:

Dear ActionAid Australia: 
I’m looking for some information about a project you funded through a subcontract with the Keumang Foundation in Aceh province, Indonesia under the EDFF multi-donor fund.  The project assisted 1,100 cocoa farmers in Aceh Timur district via training, materials (tools) delivery, and the establishment of a cocoa nursery.  Our agency is one of the donors of a small NGO in Aceh that has been implementing similar projects in the same district since 2009.  Staff have contacted various provincial ministries (forestry, agriculture, etc.) regarding the project and its final reporting.  We feel that this data could be extremely useful to other cocoa farmers in the area and their ability to form a unified organization and thus strengthen their ability to effectively produce and market their cocoa.  However, the ministries report that there seems to be no documentation regarding this project, its beneficiaries, or the data that was collected (although several representatives remember the project).

Well, a representative wrote me back and said (this was in 2013) that they were just finalizing their report and would send me the salient bits.
Months passed.
I wrote again, and received a 67-page summary. I cannot begin to tell you how many questions I wrote in the margins of this report, or how many discrepancies that I alone found, and I wasn’t even the one to do the field investigation.  JMD staff spoke with NGOs in the area, government representatives, farmers, and current co-op members in Pidie district, where the project was to be centered.

VERY briefly, this is what we discovered:

One of the project goals was to organize 4,500 farmers (including 634 women) into 7 “primary” cooperatives in Pidie, Aceh Utara and Aceh Timur. 
One “secondary” co-op was to be established in Pidie that would act as administrator and seller/buyer of cocoa. 
There was to be a training center and demonstration plot in Pidie.  There was also to be a cocoa processing factory to make cocoa butter and other products—again in Pidie.
There were to be 7 cocoa warehouses built.

Out of all these objectives, only two primary co-operatives were started—and as of March 2013 they remain only 50% complete, with no funding to complete them. Nothing else was ever constructed.

However, the report states that all 5 other proposed co-op sites, and 7 warehouse sites, were rented by AAA/Keumang, for a period of 5 years beginning 2010, with their rents paid in full.

No one has ever heard of this arrangement, and no one knows where these “rented” spaces are.

7 Small Businesses for women were supposed to be established to create materials for the cocoa farmers such as organic pesticides. There are no such businesses.

AAA explained in their report that the reasons for not constructing any of these facilities was a combination of unobtainable land use agreements, time constraints, and the slow reaction of the PMU staff from World Bank.  But still: the money was spent . . . somewhere.

Another goal was to establish 300 new HA of cocoa plantations, which involved 564 farmers (186 women). 100HA were supposed to be rehabilitated in Aceh Timur, and 64,000 trees were to be rehabilitated.
No one can show or tell us where.

The project reported that with regard to the establishment of co-operatives, they discovered that there was an extraordinary lack of capacity.  AAA reports not being aware that this would be a problem, and says nothing about the training that did take place regarding co-op administration.

The report states that all the machinery, office supplies and vehicles were delivered to the beneficiaries at the appropriate co-ops (or “virtual” co-ops.) and the warehouses.
JMD staff could find none of this machinery or vehicles. 
The factory was disallowed by the PMU at World Bank, and this was a sizeable amount of money.  The report states that it took all the money from that and transferred it to “training,” which already had a large budget.  However, the report shows that very little training actually occurred outside of Pidie, and there doesn’t seem to be any indication that farmers outside the area (in Aceh Timur, for example) could travel to the training site.
 “The project team worked with local and provincial Aceh Government staff to develop their capacity and that of the farmer members of the cooperatives in cocoa production, processing and marketing. Capacity development was increased through multiple practical and theoretical training sessions.”
No one that JMD spoke with, including government reps, remembered any of this ever happening.

A large part of the project (and one of the largest reported challenges) centered around the method by which farmers would be paid by the Secondary co-op for cocoa that they sold.  AAA developed a working capital (WC) fund plan in partnership with Bank Mandiri and World Bank.  The project placed a startup amount of working capital with the secondary co-op and “cooperatives could take loans against the collateral funds.”   
This was a very complex component and ended badly for everyone.  World Bank refused to grant AAA a second tranche of money, and AAA blamed the complexity of World Bank’s “unhelpful” regulations for this component’s failure.  However, AAA also admits that the handling of cash by the co-ops was “poorly managed.”  In the end, the activity was cancelled and “the funds were returned to the government.”  Which makes absolutely no sense, because the funds came from EDFF, not the government, and AAA had reported that it had spent and accounted for 95% of its over $6 million, so what was there to “give back?”
This whole component begged the question of World Bank/EDFF’s funding of the project in the first place, if they were not confortable with it. 
(Oh!  Oh!  May I answer?? Please, pick me!! Is it because they didn’t want to be bothered with having to allocate smaller amounts of funding to local agencies who would implement necessary projects at a fraction of the budget, and take a bit longer but not cause the $6 million loss that was incurred by just this one project????)

Moving on: AAA contended that it purchased 360,000 seedlings.
First off, there is nowhere in the province that 360,000 seedlings exist for sale, and second: where are they now???  Robert did report that the district head did say that a new training had been done “by the government” in Pidie about a year ago that involved new seedlings—perhaps some of this “government” training and seedling distribution was really part of this AAA/Keumang project.

The report states that Aceh Timur groups in the co-ops below all received an equipment package: “grafting tool, tree pruning scissors/saw, garden shears, a fermentation basket, and rolls of plastic for spreading the cocoa beans to dry under sunlight.”  
They also received 400MT of fertilizer. Aceh Timur farmers report receiving no tools, no fertilizer.  Other target areas report the same. 

The project promised that through an agreement with UNSYIAH Universitas Syiah Kuala / Syiah Kuala University, AAA would be replaced when the project completed. However, University reps stated that there was never any agreement to take over the running of the co-ops after the project ended.  AAA had asked the university to work with it to get a grant for more money to do so, but the grant was not written, or else it was rejected.  Currently, only the GTZ-supported co-op is still running, and the University assists there.

Finally, the amount of very expensive “junkets” taken (or given) to government representatives to other parts of Indonesia and SE Asia that presumably were for “education purposes,” but which did not appear to have any benefit for the target population. 

These discrepancies and unanswered questions went on and on.

Next: I’ll tell you abut the demise of Keumang, my communications with AAA, and their reaction to JMD’s request to perform an activity they said they just never got around to: a monitoring and evaluation visit.

Can you say lead balloon?

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Part II: Preface to the $6.7million cocoa improvement project that wasn’t

The 2006 NGO Impact Initiative: An Assessment by the International Humanitarian NGO Community (preface by Bill Cinton) stressed the failure of the international community in Aceh to include local NGOs in the recovery and reconstruction process.

“International NGOs should expand efforts to recognize and promote the leadership of local communities, local aid groups, and, where appropriate, affected governments in recovery from major disasters; they should also make the strengthening of local capacity in recovery from an emergency a priority equal to that of service delivery.

As many of you know, I’ve been blathering on about sustainability in this blog because I really have come to the conclusion that the word has lost all its meaning and is just trotted out in grant proposals and political speeches to get people to like whichever project or business or candidate or product is marketing itself.  To us, in Aceh, sustainability means the continuation of a practice long after outsiders have left.  It’s carried on by future generations, who decide to stick around instead of escaping at the earliest possible opportunity from a life that has always been too hard, too poor, too boring, too dangerous.

One of the things JMD keeps asking its women cocoa farmers is: do you think your kids will want to do this?  Not only do the farmers in Aceh Timur have to want to follow tradition, they have to re-invent that tradition after its nearly 30-year coma. 

Imagine if all during your childhood you were told that your family were fishermen, but the ocean was off limits and your parents never went out on the water.  You heard about it all the time from your grandparents.  Then when you’re 30, the ocean becomes open for business, someone points you to the family boat (up on blocks and rotting) and says “okay, go continue the tradition.”  You want to.  You know it’s your legacy.  But you don’t have a frigging clue.  

Welcome to cocoa farming in Aceh Timur.

As Field Officer Robert said, “The only reason people are still here growing cocoa is that their families really loved growing cocoa.”  It’s one of the most labor-intensive crops on the planet, and if it doesn’t show you an increased return, well, after a while you just have to give it up--if not for you, for the sake of your kids. 

So ever since the 2004 tsunami, JMD has been helping people across Aceh with small projects that the communities thought were important. and then we leave, and come back every year or so to see how everyone’s doing, and if they are still doing it, or if if they have modified it to respond to natural or demographic changes, then it’s still sustainable. 

When we came back to Aceh Timur in 2009 after giving an integrated agriculture training the previous year, there had been an incredible flood that washed out one of the beekeeping projects.  That’s when the first group of women approached us and asked for some help re-starting their cocoa fields.  Since then, the projects have been community-led: JMD doesn’t decide what people want; they tell us, and we see if it’s manageable, and we develop a model that can be replicated in other parts of the district or the province, because we figure, if it plays in Peoria, it might find success somewhere else.

That’s when a company called Cocoa Ventures from Medan contacted JMD and asked us to please replicate a really incredibly successful training we had developed, in what’s called IPM—integrated pest management.  Cocoa ventures wanted to purchase large amounts of beans from a group of villages to the east, almost on the border of Aceh Utara, where the land was exceptionally fertile.  Problem was, no one was helping those farmers with any type of cultivation, harvest and pest control assistance. They had lots of cocoa trees, but no idea how to recondition and maintain them.

This was a great opportunity—JMD could take its pest control clinic on the road—possibly even set up a duplicate project in the area around Pante Bidari.

First, however, JMD researched the possibility that there had been projects in that area.  If it was so fertile, if cocoa was so important a commodity, surely some of the post-tsunami Multi-Donor Fund money would have gone there.

And sure enough, we found a project, funded by EDFF/The Economic Development Financing Facility, which was the “umbrella” mechanism set up to disburse the remaining $50 million of the tsunami assistance Multi Donor Fund/MDF.  As its title suggests, it focused more on development and less on post-disaster reconstruction.  Its object was to disburse the remainder of the fund as quickly and as easily as possible, and so its allocations were in the $3-10 million range.

Gosh, I do go on.

But first, a word about the EDFF funds.  Like their big brother the MDF, EDFF funds were primarily allocated to large foreign NGOs such as IOM, Mercy Corps, Oxfam, DAI, World Wildlife Fund, etc., the rationale being that these agencies had large enough administrative and fiscal departments to adequately track the awarded funds and to file appropriate reports.  In other words, the MDF/EDFF did not trust any of the local Acehnese agencies enough to directly award them the funds.  Instead, one of two things happened: the international NGO would subcontract with a smaller local agency (IOM did this with JMD for its coffee improvement project), or it would simply poach staff from the existing local agencies, paying them far more than the local agencies could, gutting those agencies until they folded and then turning their Acehnese employees loose at the end of the project.   As far as we know, and we have done extensive research on this, there was never any money devoted to improving the administrative capacity of any local agency so that it could continue the work of reconstruction after the foreign NGOs had left. Why?  Because those NGOs had no intention of leaving until the last rupiah was extracted from the World Bank’s coffers.  And there were billions and billions—not of rupiah but of dollars.  “But we trained Acehnese staff!” they will whine, from their air conditioned HQs.  Yup, you trained ‘em all right.  And where will they go work now?  All the local agencies are gone.  So the best talent Aceh has . . . leaves the province because there is no agency there to support them.

So the EDFF has $50 million and JMD gets busy developing proposals, based on all the successful projects they’d done since 2005: an extensive goat fattening and dairy project, a sustainable livelihoods initiative in the protected forest, a cocoa improvement project for widows and fighting age males, a Robusta coffee revitalization project that included a professional coffee consultant.

And -–funny story--each of these projects was approved and adored.
They just didn’t want dinky old JMD to be the agency to get the majority of the funds.
So they took the dairy project model and gave it to then-governor Irwandi’s wife, who thought she’d like to do something like that; they asked Fauna and Flora International to implement a community forest ranger training program with JMD’s livelihoods model, they asked IOM to replicate JMD’s Robusta project, only in central Aceh and for Arabica, and they showed JMD’s model to an agency called Action Aid Australia (AAA), and gave them $6.7 million to implement a cocoa improvement project in five districts including Aceh Timur.  All of these projects have a story.  All of them made me seethe.  But the one that is so exquisitely sleazy, the one that is indeed impossible to believe, is the story of AAA and the $6.7 million that vanished without a trace, and how no one seems to be too worried about that.  I’m going to tell you about all of them.  But tomorrow we’ll start with AAA and the 3,000 imaginary cocoa farmers.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Why we should still be concerned with the effects of the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami (1st part in a series)

Terrible things are happening all over the world. 

Even in Aceh, the media is speculating about how soon the Ebola virus will get to Sumatra, and how religious intolerance in the province is contributing to the near-global view of the perils of unchecked fundamentalism.

This may be why current stories and reports, such as that of Bill Clinton’s April trip to the province, seem to place the devastation and political/economic collapse following the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami firmly in the past, with current stories of herculean reconstruction, improved living conditions, and reconciliation between a once-hostile province and a national government that only wanted the best for its people.

Indeed, if you look at the headlines, Aceh almost seems utopic in comparison to other troubled regions.

But it is not, and this unfortunate masking of some serious issues, many caused by the response to the tsunami and subsequent peace accord, is contributing to Aceh’s spooky trajectory towards being a repressive dictatorship of kleptocrats that parallels, albeit on a lesser scale, the uncontrolled brutality we’ve been witnessing in the Middle East.

Do not forget that it was only 5 years ago that Acehnese men were reported to be the largest Muslim group per capita to volunteer to join Pakistan/Afghanistan Al Qaeda for the jihad against the West.

Something made them this way, and it’s my contention that it wasn’t just misguided religious fervor.  It was desperation, and seething anger at Jakarta for having once again sold them down the river in terms of livelihoods, assistance, government positions, compensation, land acquisition, political self-determination . . . and these acts of marginalization didn’t just happen over years and years; they were also immediate products of the tsunami and subsequent reconstruction. 

I have been interested in the reconstruction efforts ever since I became part of them in early 2005.  And I witnessed firsthand how certain funds always went to certain groups.  And I kept track of this, because I knew that sooner or later this seeming inequity would affect me personally and the agency I supported.  And it did.

So during this year, the 10-year anniversary of the tsunami and the peace accord, what we will see around November is the media beginning to ramp up stories like Bill Clinton’s visit in April, where he was shown all the good things that reconstruction did.

I am not interested in demonstrating that the mismanagement of the funds led to further political instability and environmental devastation in the province, although they did.  I’m interested in helping the global donor community change its practices in the future, so that when a natural or man-made disaster hits a developing region, the first act of assistance after the emergency lifesaving measures have been accomplished is the empowerment of the local community to take charge and run the reconstruction—no matter how hard that is and how much money the foreign NGO will not be able to take back to its homeland. 

I want to start with one story.  It’s not the first example of how we knew something was not right with the reconstruction money, and it’s certainly not the most glaring example of problems with the multi-donor funds, but what it does show is how the mismanagement of 2004 reconstruction funds continues to have negative economic, environmental and political repercussions on an entire region well into 2014.

And it involves, of course, cocoa.

Stay tuned!

Friday, August 22, 2014

Is this low-profile Aceh activist a new role model for speaking out against corruption?

I know I was going to start telling you today about my investigations into a few projects that were funded with post-tsunami reconstruction money (aka your tax dollars) and my subsequent visit with Bill Clinton’s representative for the Clinton Global Initiative . . . but before the bloom is off the rose I wanted to share a bit of information about a man I had never heard of before, but who I am very happy to know represents a small watchdog group that speaks out against corruption and cronyism in Aceh . . . and I hope he continues, and is an example and role model for others.  

A little background:

 As you know, the current governor of Aceh is Zaini Abdullah, and Vice-Governor is Muzakir Manaf.  Both are members of Partai Aceh (the Aceh Party).  You will also remember that the former Governor (Irwandi) was also a member of PA until he split with them ideologically and formed the Partai Nasional Aceh (PNA).  All these guys were GAM members; Manaf was a GAM commander and is also responsible for PA’s later affiliation with the Gerindra party—ring a bell?  Fat man, nice horse, bad human rights record?

During the presidential campaign, two PA members--Zakaria Saman, GAM’s former Defense Minister and now a member of PA’s tuha peut (governing board), and Governor Abdullah, another tuha peut member, announced their support for Jokowi/Kalla, citing Kalla (bien sur) as a reason behind their endorsement, though they stressed that they spoke as individuals and not representatives of their party.

Both acknowledged Manaf’s right to support Prabowo, but, as they had done, as an individual and not as a member of PA.  This is why in the days that followed you might have read in the papers a lot of headlines reading “PA Splits Apart in the Presidential Election.”

Then in June, out of nowhere it seemed, came a band of five merry provocateurs called the Barisan Pendukung Partai Aceh (BPPA), The Aceh Party Supporters Front.

They held a press conference at the well-known Banda Aceh café, where their leader, a man named Azmi (center in photo), demanded Manaf’s abdication as the Chair of PA if he could not account for the following actions:
·       maneuvering PA into a voting bloc with Gerindra and endorsing Prabowo
·       receiving a “gift” of 50 billion rupiah from Gerindra for arranging a coalition; and
·       removal of other PA leaders for criticizing Manaf’s decisions.


Azmi had been a shadowy figure in the ever-dwindling vocal minority of political critics in Aceh, and when news of this move hit the students and the human rights watchdogs, they took to their smartphones with a vengeance, speculating about this bold but heretofore unknown personality.  As one blogger noted, the Aceh e-verse “crackled with activity and solidarity.”
“One colleague asked with excitement, ‘Is this our Azmi?’ and that naturally led me to ask, ‘Who is this Azmi’ Each of us contributed our admiring descriptions of this puzzling alien figure.
‘He lives in Jakarta. He left Aceh since his life was threatened during the conflict.
‘Azmi is Gayo [from the Aceh highlands].
‘Azmi is a man who punched former [Aceh] Governor Ibrahim Hasan in the face!
‘He is a large guy, wears a beard.
‘Azmi keeps a collection of peranakan Chinese antiques. His residence in Jakarta is like a private museum.
‘He was a referendum supporter like us, though he always operated behind the scenes of a movement, coordinating support in Jakarta.
‘Azmi owns a used bookstore in Jakarta.
‘Azmi keeps quiet; but he usually shows up at critical moments and then he lets loose.’”

Following the press conference, Manaf carpet-bombed local media with indignant outbursts claiming that BPPA did not exist, he’d never heard of Azmi, and he would pursue civil charges against him. “Even as Azmi’s accusations gained traction, Aceh’s press busied themselves with a resounding refutations from Manaf rather than a concrete exploration into Azmi’s critique.”

Azmi, as usual, kept quiet.  With good reason: dissent doesn’t go over so well in Aceh.  Which makes me wonder, again, how effective Jokowi will be in bringing some type of order to this province . . . .if he even wants to.

Blogger Taufik Al-Mubarak also has some interesting information on Azmi, revealing that he had been a student activist in Aceh, had supplied arms to GA during the conflict, and had been noticed by Partai Aceh (and Manaf) for his dedication to the cause of independence.

As the Globe Reporter notes, “For the slightest moment in a news cycle, Azmi’s vital involvement stripped bare an unholy alliance. As news of his strident critique tore through Aceh’s social media, we saw one supporter after another perk up and say, “ya, bagus dong!” [yes, good work!] as if it was about time someone challenged and dismantled PA’s false and hypocritical structure.”